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Thursday, March 09, 2017

Too Clever For Our Own Good

“And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?”

There is tremendous irony in Paul’s statement here that he is “accused by Jews” over his belief in resurrection.

Jews, who claimed the Law of Moses as their inheritance and the prophets as their own. Jews, who claimed there was one God and that he belonged to them exclusively. Jews, who claimed to believe in YHWH but many of whom balked at the concept of resurrection. To be accused by Greeks, Romans, Syrians or Asians, sure: their gods were not like YHWH, much less powerful and more human in their interpersonal dynamics.

But accused by Jews for hoping in resurrection? There’s cognitive dissonance for you!

That’s Not Incredible

“Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” Indeed. But the Sadducees did just that. They gave at least nominal assent to the idea of a God who could speak the world into being and make man out of the dust of the earth (or at least I assume so, since Charles Darwin wouldn’t make his way onto the world stage for more than 18 centuries), but their “God” lacked either the will or the ability to restore men and women to life. That’s just plain silly.

The Sadducees were a relatively recent development within Judaism, having only been on the scene for a couple hundred years at the time of Christ. Josephus tells us Sadducees tended to be from the upper socio-economic stratum of Jewish society. Intellectually elite and financially well-off, they mocked traditionalists for their archaic beliefs.

Sound familiar?

Faith and its Reward

“Whoever would draw near to God,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”

Reward is hardly an exclusively Christian concept. Godly Jews always looked to God for reward: faith necessitated it. Some looked for their reward in this life. Others, by faith, saw beyond the standard-issue earthly blessings and craved something eternal and lasting.

My Redeemer Lives

In what is probably one the earliest stories in the Bible, Job says:
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.”
What did he mean exactly? The reference is enigmatic, to be sure. We may read New Testament doctrine back into it if we like, but we might be putting words in Job’s mouth. I doubt Job had a handle on contemporary evangelical theology. What is clear is that Job anticipated that God would provide someone to take a stand on his behalf, and that this would not happen until much later in history. Moreover, this “redeemer” at very least had to be eternal himself. Job says he “lives”, meaning he existed at the time Job spoke, and will take his stand “at the last”, meaning that he will still be alive at the end of all things earthly. So Job looked to this eternal redeemer for his reward long after he himself would be dust.

Likewise, Abraham, we are told, “was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God”. His anticipation of reward in the next life was so concrete that Abraham was willing to spend his time on earth in a tent.

Received to Glory

Further, Asaph makes this stunning pronouncement:
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Wow. “Glory” and sheol would seem mutually exclusive. Some Jews at least got it. Some people always have. The writer to the Hebrews (again) speaks of prophets, judges, kings and ordinary men and women who anticipated resurrection:
“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.”
Those who suffered and died like this understood the promise of eternal reward at a gut level despite the lack of explicit information in the Old Testament itself about resurrection. Had we asked them to explain their convictions and upon what they were basing them, each one may have had something different to say.

This Is Eternal Life

But this is what faith does, and while it pleases God, it is not incredible. It follows the inexorable logic that God rewards those who seek him, and that eternity itself is inseparably bound up within the knowledge of God:
“And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Resurrection is not incredible. The ancients believed it. Even Rahab the prostitute correctly intuited that the God of Israel was a rewarder, though she probably taught few eschatology classes. Yet the Sadducees did not.

If a God exists who made us and truly wants to know us, it is axiomatic that he is both able and willing to preserve those of us who genuinely treasure knowledge of him. It cannot be otherwise.

What’s incredible is claiming to believe in God and NOT believing in resurrection. Any God who will not or cannot retrieve those he loves from the clutches of death is not much of a God, is he?

Sometimes we can be too clever for our own good.

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